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ACLS Awards Fellowship to Professor Susan Burch

April 10, 2019

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Susan Burch, professor of American Studies, has been awarded a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to research the histories of Native American people who were institutionalized at a Federal psychiatric hospital in South Dakota in the early 20th century.

The Canton Indian Insane Asylum, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Access Geneology. Click on image to enlarge.

Between 1902 and 1934, nearly 400 men, women, and children from as many as 53 Native American tribes were confined at the so-called Canton Indian Insane Asylum. The asylum closed in 1934 and it is believed that as many as 121 Native American people died there.

During her 2019-20 academic leave, Burch will work on a book-length project tentatively titled “Committed: Native Self-determination, Kinship, Institutionalization, and Remembering.” For the book, Burch will examine the ways in which individuals, kin, and tribal nations responded to the harsh conditions and long-range effects of the asylum.

Burch has made connections with people for whom the Canton Asylum is part of their family history. “Reaching out to the extended family members of people who were confined at the Canton Asylum has changed my life as a researcher and an educator. Many of these family members had no idea that the Canton Asylum even existed,” Burch said, “and I want to tell the stories of the people who were forced to live there.”

Burch, who is the director of Middlebury College’s program in American Studies, said she first learned about the Canton Asylum while working at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “My background in disability studies caused me to question terms like ‘inmate’ and ‘patient’ in looking at the Canton Asylum. For me, this project is a path toward fundamentally reconsidering how I conduct research and how I teach at Middlebury. I look forward to collaborating with people for whom [the Canton Asylum] is a personal story. Their oral history interviews will be the bedrock of this project.”

The fellowship from ACLS will give Burch “the time and resources needed to be fully attentive” to the subject matter and to the descendants of those who were confined at the asylum. “The ACLS’s generous support will amplify what is possible during my sabbatical year,” she said.

Burch, who joined the faculty in 2009 as a tenured professor in American Studies, was the first director of Middlebury's Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. She holds a PhD in American and Soviet history from Georgetown University, and she teaches courses in American Disability Studies, Madness in America, American Deaf Culture, and Disability in Film and Television, among others.